Surfing’s Laws

“We are a very territorial people, and even when surfing overseas we try to rule the break. We take the waves that are ours, and we take other surfers’ waves too.” Although some may describe surfing as a, “zen-like” sport, surfers can get very possessive over their local surf spots. This is primarily due to a set of reasons that include, but are not limited to, the following: beginner surfer’s may have never learned correct surfing etiquette; this may cause spatial dispute between amateur and newbie surfers, shortboarders tend to discriminate against longboarders due to technique differences and advantages over board control, and lastly, to the surprise of some, many professional surfers are banned from surfing local waves because they tend to draw in unwanted media exposure. In all my years of surfing waves up and down the coast of Southern California and abroad, I have experienced this aggressive behavior in the lineup, and noticed trends that have proved evident in a variety of surfing environments.

Like anything else in our society, there are rules we must follow in order to maintain structure, be socially accepted, or to simply stay out of trouble. Like most other sports, surfing requires a special framework that needs to be learned before a surfer paddles out on his/her own without the supervision of an instructor. We call this surf etiquette.  Surf etiquette essentially defines the rules of the lineup. The perfect comparison would be traffic light rules, and who has the right of way.  These are conventionally standard rules that all licensed drivers are aware of.  These same kinds of structures apply for surfing.  I have witnessed many disputes between beginners and amateur surfers in the lineup.  Most of the time, beginner surfers will just drop in on someone else’s wave without the slightest understanding of who has the right of way. This is a common occurrence at beginner surf spots (small, gentle, easy-to-catch, waves). A good example of this would be San Onofre State Beach near the nuclear power plant in San Diego.  In reality, these beginner surfers should have been excused from their mistakes in the water because it simply wasn’t their fault; whoever taught them how to surf should have made sure they learned these rules. Nevertheless, no matter what level type of wave these beginner surfers are surfing, there will almost always be a surfer higher in the lineup’s hierarchal peking order. This “better surfer” always has priority over other surfers on the water because he/she knows the rules and is always in the right position, at the right time. This surfer likely holds power over everyone else in the lineup, and depending on his/her attitude, can make or break the energy out on the water. A surfer with a poor attitude generally results in aggressive, at times hostile, behavior toward other surfers.

Personally, I think this behavior is ridiculous because every surfer started his or her surfing career as a beginner, and beginner surfers need to start somewhere, which is surfing a beginner wave.  My point is that regardless of the location, there is usually a surfer out on the water who chooses to behave aggressively just because he/she is better. According to Cassie Comley in her article, “Fall In Line, “Surfers act this way because waves are limited resources and are the cause of this aggression. “ In other words, surfers can be seen as selfish in the water and just want more for themselves, without thinking about other surfers around them. Almost every spot has one of these surfers who surfs the spot regularly, so he/she assumes power over it, taking charge over something that doesn’t belong to him/her.

Working for the UCSD recreation surf class department I have frequently seen this kind of behavior.  Just last week we had an older man who claiming that our student surfers were constantly getting in his way. After listening to his complaints, we simply apologized and went about our business. Thereafter, he tried to shut down the whole surf school making claims that our department didn’t have a permit to work on that property. He lost. Northside Scripps Pier is a beginner wave; these people should expect to see beginner surfers in all their incoordination and uncertainty atop their brightly colored, softboards and be okay with it, but they at times are simply unwilling to cooperate.

In some cases, especially world-class surf spots, advanced level shortboarders tend to show discrimination over longboarders because of their advantages. As a former longboarder I have experienced this distinctive line between to the two types of equipment. This is mainly because longboarders can catch more waves in a shorter amount of time giving them the ultimate advantage, which leads to an uneven playing field out in the lineup. I have seen this happen at well-known surf spots such as Trestles in San Clemente, Orange County. This is a world-class wave that tends to break in perfect peak, in which a surfer can choose to ride the wave in a right or left direction.  According to the Kooks Guide to Surfing any surfer that has the inside (closest to the steepest part of the wave) has the right of way. Longboarders ride boards that are much bigger and buoyant; therefore, they can paddle around the shortboarder much quicker, leaving him in the wave’s position that immediately loses the right of way. Clearly, this is unethical in the framework of surfing and has its own term in the surfer’s lingo: backpaddling. I’ve seen surfer’s backpaddle each other many times in the lineup and have been subject to it myself. Depending on the longboarder’s character, he could continuously repeat this cycle until he becomes a wave hog and creates a dispute with the shortboarder. If he persists, a fight could emerge, or some other form of violence. In fact, backpaddling has become so unethical in the lineup that it is considered a form of misconduct in competitive surfing. Anyone that does this in a contest would lose a large amount of points on their highest scoring wave of the heat. Essentially it is another form of snaking (dropping in on another surfer) someone’s wave.

According to research scholar, Paul Scott’s We Shall Fight on the Seas and Ocean, surfers tend to behave more dominantly at their home breaks. I read some of his articles that talked about some reasons as to why surfers get very territorial.  He talks about how it’s all about self-preservation, and how surfers create an identity for themselves in clans. Anyone that is not a part of these clans, usually people not from that area immediately becomes excluded. These groups exist not only in California, but also on a global level. Many pro surfers with sponsorships get paid to travel to world-class surf spots all over the world. Believe it nor not, pro surfers get excluded from surf spots too. The main reason for this is that fact they bring in media attention to these spots, especially if these areas have really good waves, and are uncrowded. Pro surfers will show up with their cameramen and start shooting. Local surfers hate this kind of thing because they end up taking all the waves, and to make it worse film their local surf spots. Once these surf videos become published tourists from imperialist nations such as the United States travel to these unexposed surf breaks. This destroys the sacredness of these waves. I’ve also personally experienced this kind of behavior on a micro level at a more “hidden” surf spot in Orange County. A surfer friend of mine was convinced that he actually owned this surf spot because he lived down the street from it.  This spot was on the property of a prestigious, private-residential community. He used every creative way to gain access whether it was kicking the gate open when no one was looking, or simply hopping it. One summer day the waves were fireing, with very few people out.  A famous pro surfer somehow got access along with his cameraman.  There ended up being an argument between that surfer and my friend. The pro surfer ended up being chased out that day. My main point is that it really didn’t matter how good that surfer was; it was more about whoever’s territory it was had dominance.

Don’t get me wrong; surfing is one of the most spiritual sports in terms of individuality, brotherhood, art, and lifestyle.  This is the standard viewpoint for a none-surfer, but in reality there are all kinds of spatial claims due to beginners vs. amateurs, longboarders vs. shortboarders, and the negations of professional surfers riding waves in territorial zones.  We talked about surfing etiquette and the rules of the game. The main issue is that surfing is really just a hierarchal law without official rules so that law is maintained through the elitist surfers, which can choose to show aggression. We talked about the advantages longboarders held over shortboarders, which created tensional discrimination in the lineup. Lastly, the protection of local breaks with the dominant surf practice of “localism” to keep outsiders and company-sponsored surfers away from taking all the waves.


Works Cited:

Chronologically ordered:

Warshaw, Matt. The History of Surfing.

Comley, Comley. Fall In Line.

Scott, Paul. We Shall Fight On the Seas.


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2 Responses to Surfing’s Laws

  1. Sarah McCullough says:

    Your attention to the tension between official and unofficial rules is productive. It provides a closed space for thinking about social norms as rules and the disciplining techniques used to keep people in line, regardless of whether or not they should “know better.” Developing these ideas further with attention to the intersection with race, class, gender, and ability would greatly strengthen this post. Surfing points out the importance of attending to geographic locale as another site of privilege. The concept of “racial spatiality” is worth integrating here. This and other course concepts could really deepen your analysis. I would have also enjoyed hearing your analysis on the videos you embedded. How do they add to your overall argument? What divides surfers other than their surfing ability? In other words, how do other categories of difference tend to map onto the social divisions in surfing? How does localism tie in with these larger societal issues, ideologies, and practices?

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